Passionate about liberty and want a chance to win $4,000? Check out our video contest!
essays

August 1975

Herbert Spencer: Andreski & Peel

Rothbard tackles two books on Herbert Spencer.

Herbert Spencer was a great and protean thinker, a self-taught genius who ranged over and systematically integrated vast realms of human thought: philosophy, politics, sociology, biology, and the other natural sciences. He was also one of the great libertarians in the history of thought, and his first, splendid work, Social Statics (1850) is still the best systematic exposition of libertarianism ever written. [Ed. note: Social Statics is available from LR. See Back List.] Despite a few flaws, it stands today as a landmark, an inspiration, and a fountainhead of libertarian ideas. It was Spencer who coined the great libertarian “law of equal liberty,” and Spencer who penetratingly developed the vital contrast between “industrial” and “militant” (militarist) principles. Spencer’s seemingly naive optimism, his belief in the inevitable progress of mankind (in his early years) was undoubtedly overdrawn, but it rested on a sound insight that the free-market economy and the libertarian society were indispensable for the successful workings of an industrial world. Hence Spencer’s belief that, since society had been progressing in the direction of freedom and industrialization, it would continue to do so. Perhaps his optimism was only premature by a century or so.

Spencer, in short, more than any other figure, was “our Marx.” At the height of his career, in the middle and late nineteenth century, Spencer was acknowledged to be the greatest intellectual figure of his age, read and hailed widely by scientists, intellectuals, and the general public alike. His acclaim was fostered by his exceptionally lucid and logical writing style, which was free of the jargon and the obscurantism that have won all too many adherents among professionals in various disciplines of social science.

Yet, in the later decades of his life, Spencer’s optimism turned understandably to bitter gloom, as the trends of thought and political reality moved inexorably from liberty and laissez faire to various forms of collectivism, forms which Spencer rightly castigated as the “New Toryism.” By the 1930s, Spencer had been so thoroughly and devastatingly tossed aside by everyone that the historian Crane Brinton could write his famous, vicious gibe: “Who now reads Spencer?”

There were two basic reasons for the cruel neglect of Spencer’s mighty achievement. One was that his methodology was entirely out of intellectual fashion. Rather than the later ritual of confining oneself to a narrow subfield in a particular discipline of philosophy or social science, Spencer dared to range over all of human thought and integrate the whole into a systematic, consistent philosophy and scientific system. Nothing could rouse more contempt from the professional social scientists of this century. Furthermore, Spencer dared to believe in natural law and natural rights, perhaps even more unfashionable in the rush toward positivism and historicism. Marx, too, was neglected by the fashionable mandarins of philosophy and social science, but Marx had working for him his collectivist ideology, which won him at least a flourishing underground of disciples who were able to “make history” in a large part of the world. But Spencer dared to be a thoroughgoing, “extreme,” and consistent laissez faire libertarian, and thus the neglect was compounded by his “exile” for so much of this century in the ideological and political wastelands.

But now interest in Herbert Spencer is beginning to revive among scholars-perhaps another straw in the wind of a renaissance of liberty and reason. J. D. Y. Peel’s intellectual biography of Spencer is the first book on the great man since the 1930s. It is valuable on that account alone, as well as for the copious scholarship and references to Spencer’s life and thought. For an exposition of Spencer’s life and output there is no better place to begin—except, of course, in his own writings. But Peel’s is scarcely the definitive work on Spencer, nor is it a very good one. In addition to being a hopelessly confused and eclectic thinker, Peel suffers from two major defects. First, as a sociologist, he is really interested in Spencer only in that role; Spencer may have been one of the founders of sociology, but that was in large part a dubious achievement. The “science” of sociology is an unholy mess today, largely due to the vague and holistic concepts at its baseband Spencer erred here too, enamoured as he was of treating society as an “organism.” Spencer managed to combine this organicist fallacy with methodological and political individualism, but needless to say this was notthe path trod by his successors. Peel compounds the problem by subjecting Spencer’s ideas and personality to sociological and psychological reductionism, and thus the ideas are not so much evaluated in themselves as they are “explained” away.

This failure to treat Spencer with genuine seriousness is the result of Peel’s second major defect: his extreme relativism and historicism. For Peel is firmly convinced that there is no enduring social reality, that everything is change, and therefore that no principles or doctrines can be carried over from one historical period to another. It is no wonder that Peel concludes that Spencer’s “interest for us now lies in how different he was from us.”

Unfortunately, Andreski, too, is a sociologist, and he suffers from a similar focus on sociology. His introductory essay to his collection of Spencer’s writings is all too brief, and it lacks Peel’s rounded account. But he does have the merit of taking Spencer’s ideas seriously and of hailing his emerging renaissance for what we have to learn from him. Andreski hails Spencer’s prophetic attacks on growing State bureaucracy, but he is unfortunately a middle-of-the-roader politically, and therefore asserts that Spencer apologized for the evils of unhampered capitalist “exploitation.”

The best thing about the Andreski volume in fact, is the collection of writings from Spencer himself, particularly the last 90 pages dealing with political philosophy. How superior Spencer is to his commentators! It is a joy to read Spencer on the militant versus the industrial principle and on self-ownership versus ownership by others. Equally exciting are his defense of liberty and his attacks on imperialism and on the State. For the rest, Herbert Spencer still awaits a historian or biographer worthy of their subject. Reviewed by Murray N. Rothbard/Political Philosophy -Biography/Andreski/LR Price $8.95/Peel/LR Price $11.95